Business Architects: What’s at the “core”?

By |2014-04-04T17:04:11+00:00April 4th, 2014|Enterprise Architecture|

I made an interesting mistake, today… one that comes up from time to time.  I used a business term in one way, and some members of my audience understood what I meant, while others did not.  In this case, the word was “core”.  The word has two different definitions.  Unfortunately, the definitions are quite different, at least in an Enterprise Architecture context.

The dictionary definition of “core” reflects the problem.  Bing dictionary defines “core” as the “central” or “most important” part of something.  Notice the word “or.”  Either meaning can be intended.

This goes to an old idea of putting the most important part of something in the middle.  In ancient kingdoms, the capital city was often very centrally located, usually near a convenient transportation route (like a river) that offered quick access to all parts of the kingdom (within reason).  So, the word core can mean “most important” or it can mean “in the middle.”  In the past, those two meanings were synonymous.

But in business, the thing “in the center” is not the most important thing.  Porter illustrates this with his (now famous) value chain model:

Porter’s Value Chain.  Image source.

What is the most important part of that model?  It’s the bottom-half, illustrated as the “primary activities” or value chain.  Porter is smart enough to avoid the word “core” because it has the connotation of “in the center” when he wanted to illustrate that value chains are not “in the center.” They traverse “end-to-end”. 

Porter seems to be somewhat alone in avoiding the term “core.”  Many business books and resources use the term “core” when referring to the primary activities.  There are countless illustrations, if you bing for images with the search phrase “business core”, where you are looking either at a set of service offerings or a value chain.  The following diagram is a business architecture reference model for the hospitality industry.  The name of this model: Core Business Domains and Processes. 

Core Business Domains and Processes – Hospitality Technology Next Generation Reference Architecture

On the other hand, there are also illustrations of business where “shared” items are at the center, and non-shared items are “at the edge”.  Illustrations like this one are also quite easy to find:

Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

In business architecture, do we illustrate “core” things to be “shared things at the center of a circle” or do we mean “core” to be “the most important things?”

In Enterprise Architecture, the distinction becomes more problematic.  Shared things are often the LEAST important thing from the perspective of the business, not the MOST important thing.  For example, the HR department is often a shared function, and unless the company is an HR service provider, that business function is not part of the value stream.  On the other hand, from the perspective of information architecture, the shared things are the most important and the non-shared things are the least important.  For example, a single understanding of “customer” is critical, especially when that understanding is shared across marketing, sales, and customer service.  It is shared, common, and very important.   

Now, add a specific use of the word “core” that is used in EA:  the notion of a “core diagram” as described in the book “Enterprise Architecture As Strategy” from Ross and Weill.  In that sense, the diagram itself may vary depending on which one of the operating models is being used, but the model itself is a shared, common understanding of the key items that are shared (whether that is process, information, or both).  In that case, the thing that is important is the thing that is shared.  That is called “core.”

Two years ago, I made a presentation to the Open Group conference about creating core diagrams using a method I created called “Minimum Sufficient Business Integration.”  In that method, I use the word “core” many times to refer to “shared” items that are central to an organizations’ Enterprise Architecture. 

So, what definition should I use for “core” when having a discussion about business and enterprise architecture?  Should the word “core” refer to “the most important” thing, or “the most shared” thing?

I don’t have a good answer.  Perhaps the best answer is to avoid the word “core” altogether.